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What it takes to photograph a red tide outbreak: masks, VapoRub, chocolate milk and a strong stomach

LUIS SANTANA   |   TimesTens of thousands of dead fish and crustaceans have washed up on Madeira Beach in Pinellas County Sunday afternoon Sunday September 15, 2018.
LUIS SANTANA | TimesTens of thousands of dead fish and crustaceans have washed up on Madeira Beach in Pinellas County Sunday afternoon Sunday September 15, 2018.
Published Sep. 27, 2018

The worst red tide algae bloom in a decade has rocked Florida's beaches in recent months, including those in Pinellas County, keeping tourists from hotels and waterfront restaurants. The organism that affects the central nervous system has killed thousands of fish, plus dolphins, turtles, seabirds and at least 100 manatees. Humans, too, can experience coughing, sneezing, tearing and itchy throats. Also, there's that unbearable odor.

Now, as many on Pinellas County beaches cross their fingers as the smell and rust-colored water starts to wane, we talked to the photojournalists who brought us the images of Red Tide. The demands of the job sent them toward the beaches and harbors most people were fleeing, crouching down, right in the face of a river of death to capture the right image.

Here's what it was like to carry out that assignment in Tampa Bay Times photographers' own words.

Martha Asencio-Rhine

St. Pete Beach had been spared the worst of the red tide, but that came to an end Sept. 15 when Times photography intern Martha Asencio-Rhine got a tip and headed to Pass-a-Grille, one of her favorite beaches growing up in St. Petersburg.

"As soon as I parked and opened the car door, the smell hits you. It felt worse in the parking lot, but maybe it's so concentrated over by the water that maybe my nose went numb."

"I stepped on a few fish trying to get the right shot, which was disgusting, but there was no way around it. They were just everywhere."

"I started to cough every so often and I had that tight feeling in my chest, like when you run in the cold. I do have allergies and light respiratory issues, so perhaps that's why it affected me so quickly, but I began to cough very soon after arriving, and I was only there one hour."

"And you can't get the smell out of your nose for hours. I took a long hot shower, rubbed lotion everywhere, but I kept smelling it. It felt like it was stuck in my nasal cavities."

"There were a lot of birds swarming, seagulls and other small birds as well. The seagulls were the most prominent on the beach, picking at dead fish."

"I wanted to show that the birds were playing a factor also by eating the fish. There were a lot of birds concentrating in that one spot and you can seen them just sitting there. They are reflected in that pool of water and you can see the little bodies of fish all around them."

"The water was a dirty brown, tea-colored, not like it usually looks on Pass-a-Grille, which is usually very blue and clear. I didn't have rain boots. I wore flip flops. I tried to get as close as I could without touching what I perceived as dirty water or dead fish. But I wanted to capture that perspective from right at the shore."

Scott Keeler

After nearly 32 years at the Times, this is the third red tide outbreak that Scott Keeler has covered. In the late '90s, he vividly remembers how "the smell bowled you over" at Clearwater Marina. And again in 2005. For the past two weeks, things got worse every day in Pinellas County.

"There were volunteers bringing dead fish into Johns Pass and they are going nonstop. It looks like a thankless job. There were so many dead fish Wednesday (Sept. 19) that it was like, my God, they'll never get to the bottom of this."

"You try to get different angles to show the amount of dead fish. You have to kneel down and put your face right in it. One of the shots I got up on the Johns Pass drawbridge and shot down on the water, and you saw the stuff floating by."

"Believe it or not, I needed a break and it was really hot and I ended up going to McDonald's and ordering a fish sandwich. So go figure. I like the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, what can I say? Everybody was saying what are you crazy?"

"I feel really badly for the businesses. I was in John's Pass earlier in the week and there was no one there. I walked into Hooters and there were three Hooters waitresses with their elbows on the bar. I asked them if they had any customers. This was at 12:15 and they said "You are the first."

"There's a burning feeling. It feels like someone is grabbing the back of your throat and is just pulling."

"The other day underneath the John's Pass Bridge I was really tasting it. You start tasting it in your mouth. I got home and we have a bottle of chocolate milk in the refrigerator and I drank that and it cut the taste. It worked. So use chocolate milk, it's that creamy texture.

"When I went with (Times environmental reporter) Craig Pittman to cover the necropsy on the manatees it was pretty pungent in there and we both put Vick's VapoRub under our noses and I wore a construction mask and that really cut it. That worked.

"The people that have to smell it for long periods of times are the volunteers that are cleaning up and the contractors cleaning up. They are right in it."

Luis Santana

Drones have played a big part in Luis Santana's news coverage. On Sept. 16, when he was assigned to photograph the area where contractors were dumping huge mounds of dead fish scooped up from Madeira Beach, his drone skills allowed him to save his breath and still get the shot. Workers filled a dumpster full of dead fish and a second one was half full when a third empty one arrived.

"I tried to photograph it by holding my breath. I wanted a close-up shot of the dumpster but had to climb on top of it to get the perfect angle since it was so high. I attempted to jump on top and quickly get a shot while holding my breath but when I went to put my hand on the edge of the dumpster to climb up, there was fish guts everywhere. I almost lost it right there."

"So that's when I decided to do a Facebook Live and make a video for Twitter before putting the drone in the air and getting the shots I needed to finish up the photos for the day.

"After about two hours (on Madeira Beach), my throat started to get scratchy and I started to feel a little nauseous. So I put on a mask that I was given to me by one of the county crews and continued shooting. I actually wished I put it on sooner because my throat and nose bothered me that entire day and night when I got home. Breathing in algae and dead fish guts can't be good for you."

When the bloom first hit Pinellas, some said media coverage of Red Tide was wrong and local beaches were largely clear of dead fish. But that was because officials dispatched boats to scoop up fish before they reached shore. Santana the drone wiz captured an aerial view of shrimp boats collecting fish from the waters off of Madeira Beach.

"Pinellas County was doing its best to keep the beaches clean by proactively scooping the fish from the water before it reached the beaches. But even though they had several boats out there they were no match for mother nature. I kept saying that we as journalists wanted to fully document not only the amount of fish, but what was being done to clean it up. And as a team, I think we did a great job."

Douglas R. Clifford

Clifford, who has worked for 20 years at the Times, spent the week of Sept. 10 searching for signs of the algae bloom in tandem with Keeler. Clifford checked out the beaches from Tarpon Springs and headed south, meeting Keeler mid-county at Indian Rocks Beach. He only found a few dead fish here and there. Then, on Sept. 20 ...

"I pulled into Sand Key Park and noticed red tide advisory signs posted and they temporarily suspended all parking fees and wrapped all parking equipment, so I knew something was up. I got out and on the north side on the rock jetty of Sand Key and the fish kill was massive, 20 yards wide and undetermined how long it is, but it just kept coming. It was coming from under the Sand Key bridge, moving west into the gulf and wrapping around Sand Key Park."

"Because I had to get the camera down close to the water and I wanted to get the city of Clearwater in the background, I climbed down on these rocks and the rock was covered in slime and slippery and my boot slipped and I fell right into that slurry."

"It is irritating to your lungs. It's sweet and acrid and acidic, like someone left the tuna fish out all night. It just kind of swirls around and was slowly creeping up on us. It was like a moving river of death.

'"The slurry has its own biological system working around it. There's schools of fish swarming off the mass and feeding off it and there were air bubbles and flies, so there's a lot of biology going on. It's kind of like mother nature culling the herd."

"I have three young kids we took to private swimming lessons and their teacher once told us drowning is the quietest death. Seeing the scene at Sand Key Park reminded me of that. At one moment there were no fish around me and then all of a sudden they rolled up. It was equally as dramatic as it was silent."